Tech for Whom?

Charley Johnson has a good line of questions and critique for any organization or group which is promoting a ‘technology for good’ program. The crux is that any and all techno-utopian proposals suggest a means of technology to solve a problem as defined by the party making the proposal. Put another way, these kinds of solutions do not tend to solve real underlying problems but, instead, solve the ‘problems’ for which hucksters have build a pre-designed a ‘solution’.

This line of analysis isn’t new, per se, and follows in a long line of equity, social justice, feminism, and critical theory writers. Still, Johnson does a good job in extracting key issues with techno-utopianism. Key, is that any of these solutions tend to present a ‘tech for good’ mindset that:

… frames the problem in such a way that launders the interests, expertise, and beliefs of technologists…‘For good’ is problematic because it’s self-justifying. How can I question or critique the technology if it’s ‘for good’? But more importantly, nine times out of ten ‘for good’ leads to the definition of a problem that requires a technology solution.

One of the things that we are seeing more commonly is the use of data, in and of itself, as something that can be used for good: data for good initiatives are cast as being critical to solving climate change, making driving safer, or automating away the messier parties of our lives. Some of these arguments are almost certainly even right! However, the proposed solutions tend to rely on collecting, using, or disclosing data—derived from individuals’ and communities’ activities—without obtaining their informed, meaningful, and ongoing consent. ‘Data for good’ depends, first and often foremost, on removing the agency to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a given ‘solution’.

In the Canadian context efforts to enable ‘good’ uses of data have emerged through successively introduced pieces of commercial privacy legislation. The legislation would permit the disclosure of de-identified personal information for “socially beneficial purposes.” Information could be disclosed to government, universities, public libraries, health care institutions, organizations mandated by the government to carry out a socially beneficial purpose, and other prescribed entities. Those organizations could use the data for a purpose related to health, the provision or improvement of public amenities or infrastructure, the protection of the environment or any other prescribed purpose.

Put slightly differently, whereas Johnson’s analysis is towards a broad concept of ‘data for good’ in tandem with elucidating examples, the Canadian context threatens to see broad-based techno-utopian uses of data enabled at the legislative level. The legislation includes the ability to expand whom can receive de-identified data and the range of socially beneficial uses, with new parties and uses being defined by regulation. While there are a number of problems with these kinds of approaches—which include the explicit removal of consent of individuals and communities to having their data used in ways they may actively disapprove of—at their core the problems are associated with power: the power of some actors to unilaterally make non-democratic decisions that will affect other persons or communities.

This capacity to invisibly express power over others is the crux of most utopian fantasies. In such fantasies, power relationships are resolved in the absence of making them explicit and, in the process, an imaginary is created wherein social ills are fixed as a result of power having been hidden away. Decision making in a utopia is smooth and efficient, and the power asymmetries which enable such situations is either hidden away or just not substantively discussed.

Johnson’s article concludes with a series of questions that act to re-surface issues of power vis-a-vis explicitly raising questions of agency and the origin and nature of the envisioned problem(s) and solution(s):

Does the tool increase the self-determination and agency of the poor?

Would the tool be tolerated if it was targeted at non-poor people?

What problem does the tool purport to solve and who defined that problem?

How does the way they frame the problem shape our understanding of it?

What might the one framing the problem gain from solving it?

We can look to these questions as, at their core, raising issues of power—who is involved in determining how agency is expressed, who has decision-making capabilities in defining problems and solutions—and, through them, issues of inclusion and equity. Implicit through his writing, at least to my eye, is that these decisions cannot be assigned to individuals but to individuals and their communities.

One of the great challenges for modern democratic rule making is that we must transition from imagining political actors as rational, atomic, subjects to ones that are seen as embedded in their community. Individuals are formed by their communities, and vice versa, simultaneously. This means that we need to move away from traditional liberal or communitarian tropes to recognize the phenomenology of living in society, alone and together simultaneously, while also recognizing and valuing the tilting power and influence of ‘non-rational’ aspects of life that give life much of its meaning and substance. These elements of life are most commonly those demonized or denigrated by techno-utopians on the basis that technology is ‘rational’ and is juxtaposed against the ‘irrationality’ of how humans actually live and operate in the world.

Broad and in conclusion, then, techno-utopianism is functionally an issue of power and domination. We see ‘tech bros’ and traditional power brokers alike advancing solutions to their perceived problems, and this approach may be further reified should legislation be passed to embed this conceptual framework more deeply into democratic nation-states. What is under-appreciated is that while such legislative efforts may make certain techno-utopian activities lawful the subsequent actions will not, as a result, necessarily be regarded as legitimate by those affected by the lawful ‘socially beneficial’ uses of de-identified personal data.

The result? At best, ambivalence that reflects the population’s existing alienation from democratic structures of government. More likely, however, is that lawful but illegitimate expressions of ‘socially beneficial’ uses of data will further delegitimize the actions and capabilities of the states, with the effect of further weakening the perceived inclusivity of our democratic traditions.

Book Review: Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (2020) ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Xiaowei Wang’s book, Blockchain Chicken Farm And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, presents a nuanced and detailed account of the lives reality of many people in China through the lenses of history, culture, and emerging technologies. She makes clear through her writing that China is undergoing a massive shift through efforts to digitize the economy and society (and especially rural economies and societies) while also effectively communicating why so many of these initiatives are being undertaken. 

From exploring the relationship between a fraught cold chain and organic chicken, to attempts to revitalize rural villages by turning them into platform manufacturing towns, to thinking through and reflecting on the state of contemporary capitalistic performativity in rural China and the USA alike, we see how technologies are being used to try and ‘solve’ challenges while often simultaneously undermining and endangering the societies within which they are embedded. Wang is careful to ensure that a reader leaves with an understanding of the positive attributes of how technologies are applied while, at the same time, making clear how they do not remedy—and, in fact, often reify or extenuate—unequal power relationships. Indeed, many of the positive elements of technologies, from the perspective of empowering rural citizens or improving their earning powers, are either being negatively impacted by larger capitalistic actors or the technology companies whose platforms many of these so-called improvements operate upon. 

Wang’s book, in its conclusion, recognizes that we need to enhance and improve upon the cultural spaces we operate and live within if we are to create a new or reformed politics that is more responsive to the specific needs of individuals and their communities. Put differently, we must tend to the dynamism of the Lifeworld if we are to modify the conditions of the System that surrounds, and unrelentingly colonizes, the Lifeworld. 

Her wistful ending—that such efforts of (re)generation are all that we can do—speaks both to a hope but also an almost resignation that (re)forming the systems we operate in can only take place if we manage to avoid being distracted by the bauble or technology that is dangled in front of us, to distract us from the existential crises facing our societies and humanity writ large. As such, it concludes very much in the spirit of our times: with hope for the future but a fearful resignation that despite our best efforts, we may be too late to succeed. But, what else can we do?

Link

Brian Eno on Atomization and Underlining

Really appreciated this interview with Eno. Two select quotations that stuck with me:

Something that kind of disappoints me is that most of the new technology from the ’80s onwards has been about the atomization of society. It’s been about you being able to be more and more separate from everybody else. That’s why I don’t like the headphones thing. I don’t want to be separate in that way.

I can’t say that I agree with this assessment, but understand that technology is wrapped up in a very particular culture of neoliberal capitalism that can be harmful for communities writ large. His subsequent reflections more broadly about social media—that it can create the almost total self-enclosure of micro-communities—is definitely something that raises prominent concerns, though frankly I wish that there was more scholarship that dug into this as an issue as took place about 15 or so years ago. Obviously there is new scholarship but little of it seems methodologically satisfactory with focuses on quantitative rather than qualitative and quantitative approaches.

Quite a few of the films I’ve made music for, I never saw the picture before I finished all the music. And I like that, because I don’t want the music to map totally onto the film. I want the music to suggest — to increase the ambiguity, basically. To expand the film a bit. Not to underline it. Often, and especially with Hollywood soundtracks, the whole point of the soundtrack is to tell you, the dumb sod watching it, “Now you’re supposed to feel sad. Now it’s funny. Laugh! Go on!” And I just don’t want to be in that business of underlining things.

This seems like a pretty stellar way of thinking through what he wants his work to do, and not do. Though in a contemporary era I’m surprised that producers or directors are willing to leave the music so out of their control.

The Roundup for April 1-30, 2020 Edition

(Unhoused by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


Inspiring Quotation

When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.

I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.
– Fred Rogers

Great Photography Shots

Some of the photos for the 2020 All About Photos Awards are just terrific.

“Jump of the wildebeest” © Nicole Cambre. 5th Place, All About Photo Awards.

“Beyond the wall” © Francesco Pace Rizzi. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards

“The Wallace’s Flying Frog” © Chin Leong Teo. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards

“Step by Step” © Mustafa AbdulHadi. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards

Untitled © Yoni Blau. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards

Woman Mursi © Svetlin Yosifov. Particular Merit Mention, All About Photo Awards

Music I’m Digging

My April best-of playlist features some classic alternative and a lot of not-so-new rap and R&B. I guess this is the first full playlist I’ve created purely when in self-isolation?

Neat Podcast Episodes

  • Lawfare-Jim Baker in FISA Errors // Baker previously was responsible for, in part, reviewing the FISA applications put before the FISC. Recently, the DOJ IG found that 29 of 29 applications they reviewed had errors, including a seeming failure to document or prove the facts set out in the applications. Baker assessed the legal implications as well as the normative implications of the deficits, and the need to develop stronger managerial control over all future applications.
  • CBC Ideas—The Shakespeare Conspiracy // Using Shakespeare as a kind of distancing tool—he’s long dead and so unlikely to enliven contemporary political passions—Paul Budra explores how different scholars and public intellectuals have asserted who Shakespeare ’really was’ and the rationales behind such assertions. In an era where the West is increasingly concerned about the rise of conspiracies this espisode provides a range of productive tools to assess and critique new and emerging conspiracies.
  • NPR throughline—Buzzkill // Mosquitos are, without a doubt, responsible for more human deaths than anything else on earth. This superb short podcast goes through how mosquitos have been essential to empire, warfare, and changes to humans’ genetic makeup.

Good Reads

  • The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic // Anderson has done a spectacular job showcasing the beautiful humanity of Weird Al. In tracing his origin story, and explaining the care and time Al puts into his work, and the love he has for his fans, you really appreciate just how lovely a man he is. If anyone is a Tom Hanks for the geeks, it may end up being Weird Al.
  • There Is a Racial Divide in Speech-Recognition Systems, Researchers Say // It’s as though having engineers of particular ethnicities, building products that work for them, while also lacking employees of other ethnicities, has implications for developing technology. And the same is true of when developers do not include people with diverse socio-legal or socio-economic backgrounds.
  • The chemistry of cold-brew coffee is so hot right now // God bless the coffee-obsessed scientists who’ve taken a deep dive into the way that coffee beans respond to different extraction methods, as well as provide their own cold brew recipes. I can’t wait to see what research percolates out of this lab going forward!
  • What’s the Deal With False Burrs? // Having only recently managed to properly clean my home grinder, I was curious to learn a bit more about the differences in burr grinders. While I’m satisfied with my current grinder I can predict—based in owning a ‘faux’ burr grinder—that a Baratza Encore or Virtuoso is in my near future.
  • LIDAR: Peek Into The Future With iPad Pro // The recent release of the newest iPad Pro iteration has been met with a lot of yawns by reviewers. That makes a lot of sense, given the combination of the ongoing crisis and relatively minimal changes over the 2018 iPad Pro. The only really major new thing is a LIDAR system that is now part of the camera bump, but no mainstream reviewers have really assessed its capabilities. Fortunately the folks from Halide—a smartphone camera company—have dug into what LIDAR brings (and doesn’t bring) to the floor. Their review is helpful and, also, raises the question of whether professionals who do modelling should be consulted on the utility of these kinds of features, just as photographers—not gadget reviewers—should be asked deep and probing questions about the cameras that are integrated into smart devices these days.
  • The Mister Rogers No One Saw // Fred Rogers has had a number of films made about him and his life, but this essay by Jeanne Marie Laskas is different because it is so deeply personal about the relationships Fred had with those around him, and with the author. He inhabited a world that was just a little bit different than our own; his creativity was drawn from this place. But it was also a creativity linked with a deep ethic of work, where he focused on ensuring that his art was as perfect as possible. And left unstated in the article is one of the real testaments to his work: he would re- edit episodes, years after they had first been produced, when he found there were elements he was unhappy with or that no longer adequately represented what he had learned was a more right way of thinking about things. Also left unwritten in this piece was Fred’s belief that children we resilient and could be taught about the world; his shows dealt with issues like the Vietnam war and nuclear war in ways that were approachable to children who deserved to be involved in understanding their world, and always knowing they weren’t alone in it, and that it was perfectly ok to have feelings about it.
  • New York and Boston Pigeons Don’t Mix // The sheer size of pigeon populations–they extent across vast swathes of urbanized (and road connected) land–is pretty amazing. But, equally interesting, is how rural environments seem to, effectively, segregate populations from one another. It’s just another example of how genetically diverse groups can exist all around us, without our ever realizing the distinctiveness.

Cool Things

  • I Miss the Office // If you want office sounds for your work at home, then this site has you covered. (Also, if this is what you’re missing you’re kinda weird!)
  • How to Make Whipped Coffee // I am very curious to try and make this at some point in the future!
  • The Slow Fade of City Life // When the last two images are accurate, you know it’s a lot easier to get through the lack of the city.
  • Campari and Orange Juice // I have to say, this is my new favourite brunch drink. It tastes almost like grapefruit juice, though the real secret—not in this recipe—is to aerate the Campari and OJ in a blender before mixing in a cocktail shaker. The aeration really opens up the Campari and gives the whole drink a level of creaminess it otherwise wouldn’t have.
Quote

… surely there is no automatic, positive link between knowledge and power, especially if that means power in a social or political sense. At times knowledge brings merely an enlightened impotence or paralysis. One may know exactly what to do but lack the wherewithal to act. Of the many conditions that affect the phenomenon of power, knowledge is but one and by no means the most important.

  • Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology
Link

Transparency Follows After Trust Is Lost

Via Wired:

Speaking at Davos, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi pointed out that consumers face a challenge in trying to understand tech’s influence in the age of big data. He called this an “information asymmetry.” In his previous job, as CEO of Expedia, Khosrowshahi said, customers were shown a tropical island while they waited for their purchase page to show up. As a test, engineers replaced the placid image with a stressful one that showed a person missing a train. Purchases shot up. The company subbed in an even more stressful image of a person looking at a non-working credit card, and purchases rose again. One enterprising engineer decided to use image of a cobra snake. Purchases went higher.

What’s good for a business isn’t always good for that businesses’ users. Yet Khosrowshahi stopped testing because he decided the experiment wasn’t in line with the Expedia’s values. “A company starts having so much data and information about the user that if you describe it as a fight, it’s just not a fair fight,” said Khosrowshahi.

The tech industry often responds to these concerns with a promise to be more transparent—to better show how its products and services are created and how they impact us. But transparency, explained Rachel Botsman in the same Davos conversation, is not synonymous with trust. A visiting professor at the University of Oxford’s Said School, Botsman authored a book on technology and trust entitled “Who Can You Trust?” “You’ve actually given up on trust if you need for things to be transparent,” she said. “We need to trust the intention of these companies.”

I think that it’s how little design flourishes are used to imperceptibly influence consumers that should be used to justify more intensive ethics and legal education to designers and engineers. Engineers of physical structures belong to formal associations that can evaluate the appropriateness of their members’ creations and conduct. Maybe it’s time for equivalent professional networks to be build for the engineers and developers who are building the current era’s equivalents to bridges, roads, and motor vehicles.

Link

The London Tube Is Tracking Riders with Their Phones

From Wired:

An agency like TfL could also use uber-accurate tracking data to send out real-time service updates. “If no passengers are using a particular stairway, it could alert TfL that there’s something wrong with the stairway—a missing step or a scary person,” Kaufman says. (Send emergency services stat.)

The Underground won’t exactly know what it can do with this data until it starts crunching the numbers. That will take a few months. Meanwhile, TfL has set about quelling a mini-privacy panic—if riders don’t want to share data with the agency, Sager Weinstein recommends shutting off your mobile device’s Wi-Fi.

So, on the one hand, they’ll apply norms and biases to ascertain why their data ‘says’ certain things. But to draw these conclusion the London transit authority will collect information from customers and the only way to disable this collection is to reduce the functionality of your device when you’re in a public space. Sounds like a recipe for great consensual collection of data and subsequent data ‘analysis’.

Link

Turkey coup plotters’ use of ‘amateur’ app helped unveil their network

The Guardian:

A senior Turkish official said Turkish intelligence cracked the app earlier this year and was able to use it to trace tens of thousands of members of a religious movement the government blames for last month’s failed coup.

Members of the group stopped using the app several months ago after realising it had been compromised, but it still made it easier to swiftly purge tens of thousands of teachers, police, soldiers and justice officials in the wake of the coup.

Starting in May 2015, Turkey’s intelligence agency was able to identify close to 40,000 undercover Gülenist operatives, including 600 ranking military personnel, by mapping connections between ByLock users, the Turkish official said.

However, the Turkish official said that while ByLock helped the intelligence agency identify Gülen’s wider network, it was not used for planning the coup itself. Once Gülen network members realised ByLock had been compromised they stopped using it, the official said.

But intelligence services are policing agencies are still ‘Going Dark’…

Link

Why wearable fitness trackers offer no weight-loss ‘advantage’

CBC:

Both groups had significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity and diet, with no significant difference between groups, they said.

In total, 75 per cent of participants completed the study.

Estimated average weights for the group wearing trackers were 212 pounds at study entry and 205 pounds at 24 months, resulting in an average weight loss of about 7.7 pounds.

In comparison, those in the website group started out at 210 pounds when the study began and weighed in at 197 pounds at 24 months, for an average loss of 13 pounds.

Still, Jakicic said in an email: “We should not send the message that these wearable technologies do not help with weight loss — there were some in our study for whom it made a difference.

I would argue that the ‘advantage’ that the trackers offer is to motivate people who otherwise might be less mindful on a regular basis to increase their daily activity. The headline of the article directly contradicts the point made by the study’s author: that the message should not be that wearables do not help with weight loss.

Perhaps one of the broader issues is that weight loss is predominantly associated with dietary changes. Fitness trackers focus on activity. As such, meeting fitness tracker goals (absent food monitoring) can lead to reduced weight losses as compared to those engaged in more comprehensive health and diet tracking.

Link

How foreign governments spy using PowerPoint and Twitter

How foreign governments spy using PowerPoint and Twitter:

Right now, there are probably many journalists, human rights organizations and democracy activists walking around oblivious to the invisible tracking that is going on behind their backs. It’s time to wake up to the silent epidemic of targeted digital attacks on civil society and do something about it.

The protections built into our technologies are flimsy and routinely subverted. The merits of a ‘first to market’ ethos that predominates technical innovation must be contrasted, and weighed, against the mortal risk these same technologies pose to some users.